Saturday, March 21, 2009


"Artists don't need criticism. Artists need love."—Chuck Jones

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and filmmakers Peggy Stern and
John Canemaker—who earned Oscars® for the animated short The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation—have collected the memories of one of Hollywood's greatest animators in a unique, half-hour film entitled Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood. This film, which combines an interview with the legendary animator with newly created animated segments, premieres on TCM Tuesday, March 24, at 5PM (PT), followed by a selection of his films (complete schedule below).

Simple and sweet, the Stern/Canemaker documentary sketches the mirthful soul of a man who has delighted children and the spirit of children within adults for decades. Commencing with childhood reminisces of orchestrating nature off a seaside boardwalk, Jones pinpoints where the concept of the Acme Company came from, how a stray cat named Johnson taught him about the individuality of cats, which informed his ability to characterize animations. Jones talks about his family—a doting mother, a disciplinarian father, and a favorite uncle who trained ants and taught him a lesson in perspective: that the road is better than the end. Jones further delineates the influence of Mark Twain on the creation of Wile E. Coyote, and how he creatively compensated his own insecurities with girls through the presumed irresistibility of Pepe Le Pew.

The Stern/Canemaker film Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood grew out of director Stern's interest in exploring the childhood experiences of artists. In 1997, Canemaker—a longtime mutual friend of Jones and Stern—brought them together for the interviews that became the basis of the film. During the interviews, Jones spontaneously began sketching his boyhood self as he related his memories. These sketches later inspired the documentary's animated sequences, which Canemaker directed.

Shortly before his death, Jones had an opportunity to see a test cut of the film, with new animation and archival imagery blended into the interview footage, and pronounced it "delightful." The Jones family subsequently provided additional material from the family archive, resulting in an intimate film full of revealing anecdotes about the events and personalities that influenced his early creative life and long career in cartoons.

The following is the complete schedule for TCM's March 24 tribute to Chuck Jones (PT):

5:00PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Premiere
5:30PM The Night Watchman (1938)
5:40PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
5:50PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
6:00PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
6:10PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
6:20PM Haredevil Hare (1948)
6:30PM Duck Amuck (1953)
6:40PM One Froggy Evening (1955)
6:50PM What's Opera, Doc? (1957)
7:00PM The Dot and the Line (1965)
7:15PM The Bear that Wasn't (1967)
7:30PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Encore
8:00PM The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)
9:30PM The Night Watchman (1938)—Encore
9:40PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)—Encore
9:50PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)—Encore
10:00PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)—Encore
10:10PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)—Encore
10:20PM Haredevil Hare (1948)—Encore
10:30PM Duck Amuck (1953)—Encore
10:40PM One Froggy Evening (1955)—Encore
10:50PM What's Opera, Doc? (1957)—Encore
11:00PM The Dot and the Line (1965)—Encore
11:15PM The Bear that Wasn't (1967)—Encore
11:30PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)—Encore
12:00AM The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)—Encore

Legendary animation producer, director and screenwriter Chuck Jones was the last surviving giant from the golden era of Warner Bros. animation, a period spanning roughly from 1935 to 1959. He excelled at designing and posing expressive characters. Jones has been quoted as saying that an animator is "an actor with a pencil." If so, his work revealed him as a master thespian.

The son of a sometimes abusive father, Jones dropped out of high school and enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute (later known as the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles at age 15. After a brief stint at a commercial art studio, he became a cel-washer at the Ub Iwerks Studio. He moved up the ranks, becoming a cel-painter, cel-inker and in-betweener (assistant animator) before being fired, rehired and fired again by Iwerks. He worked a variety of jobs before becoming an assistant animator with Leon Schlesinger Productions, the animation unit at Warner Brothers, around 1933. The animation team of Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (Harman-Ising) had recently departed, and Schlesinger was building his own unit.

Jones was promoted to animator in 1934 and worked on several cartoons helmed by Friz Freleng and others before being assigned with Bob Clampett to Tex Avery's unit at Termite Terrace, the nickname for the bungalow on the Warner lot where the animators toiled. This astonishing assemblage of talent first collaborated on the epochal Gold Diggers of 1949 (1936), Avery's first cartoon for Warners. With this uneven start, an important new era in cartoon history had begun.

By 1938, Jones had graduated to the status of director. His early efforts revealed a strong debt to Walt Disney in both style and subject matter. Set in a world where cute was king, these cartoons typically featured a small, quiet character in a large, forbidding environment, such as in The Night Watchman (1938); Naughty but Mice (1939), which introduced the mouse character Sniffles; and Little Lion Hunter (1939), which introduced the character Inki.

In the early '40s, much of Jones' work was overshadowed by the work of Bob Clampett. But he explored styles and honed his skills, often working without pay on the first cartoons for UPA (United Productions of America), with his 1942 cartoon The Dover Boys becoming a major influence on what would become the UPA style.

After a crippling animators strike, of which Jones was a fervent supporter, studios began cutting back on production costs for cartoons, which resulted in less lavish animation. This cutback, however, spurred Jones to some of his greatest achievements. He began experimenting with stylized minimalist backgrounds, refining movement and paring character animation down to its essentials.

Jones had directed the second and third appearances of the prototypical Bugs Bunny in Prest-o Change-o (1939) and Elmer's Candid Camera (1940). Though Tex Avery would finally crystalize the rabbit's personality later in A Wild Hare (1940), Jones became one of the best helmers of Bugs Bunny, with such memorable installments as Hare-Raising Hare (1946), Baby Buggy Bunny (1954) and Bully for Bugs (1953).

Jones conceived Daffy Duck as a cowardly self-preservationist continually undone by his own greed or selfishness. Jones' trilogy of cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd—Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952) and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953)—were masterfully subtle and imaginative examples of character animation. Jones also derived much comic mileage from placing Daffy in wildly incongruous settings, such as in The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century and Robin Hood Daffy (1958). He rose to new heights with Duck Amuck (1953), a classic example of reflexivity in cinema, in which Daffy is presented as an animated figure tormented by a mostly off-screen animator.

Jones won the studio an Oscar with For Scent-imental Reasons (1949), which starred one of his most popular creations, the amorous French skunk, Pepe Le Pew. He also created the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote series, which represented the chase film boiled down to its essentials.

In addition to working with an impressive stable of continuing characters, Jones also excelled at "one-shot" cartoons. The most celebrated example may well be One Froggy Evening (1955), an allegory about a singing frog, later christened Michigan J. Frog, who became the symbol of Warner Brothers' WB Network in the mid-'90s.

Many fans and historians believe that Jones achieved his masterpiece with What's Opera, Doc? (1957), which condensed Wagner's 14-hour Der Ring des Nibelungun into a classic six-minute cartoon. This extraordinarily lavish spoof of opera required 106 shots. In 1992, the film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

After the demise of Warner Bros. animation in the early 1960s, Jones briefly went to MGM, where he produced and directed a memorable series of Tom and Jerry cartoons. He subsequently kept working through his own production company, Chuck Jones Enterprises, primarily on TV specials, the most famous of which is Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, originally broadcast on CBS in 1966.

Jones and his wife also co-wrote the screenplay for the UPA animated feature Gay Purr-ee (1962), which featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as French cats. And he produced, co-wrote and co-directed (with Abe Levitow) the cartoon portion of the film version of Norman Juster's book The Phantom Tollbooth (1969).

After a semi-retirement in which he lectured, led workshops, painted and received numerous awards, tributes and accolades, Jones returned to the business of directing theatrical cartoons. In 1993, he signed a deal with Warner Brothers to produce and direct new animated shorts featuring classic and new characters. At the age of 82, he produced and directed Chariots of Fur (1994), a new Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon released with the feature Richie Rich. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the following year.

Jones was given an honorary Oscar at the 1996 ceremony for "the creation of classic cartoons and cartoon characters whose animated lives have brought joy to our real ones for more than half a century." He passed away in 2002.

My thanks to TCM publicist Sarah Schmitz for forwarding the above biographical information on Chuck Jones condensed from
TCM's online database. Additional information on Chuck Jones can be obtained at his official website, Wikipedia, and the Senses of Cinema Great Directors Profile on Jones, written by Bill Schaffer.

Cross-published on


Brian said...

A well-deserved tribute to one of the giants. Here's hoping TCM decides to follow it up with future spotlights on other animation legends.

I love Canemaker's idea of exploring the childhoods of artsists for clues to their future work.

Great piece, Michael.

Maya said...

Thanks, Brian. I appreciate the feedback. I taped the entire program for you so we'll have to figure out a time to pass the cassette. Hope all is well with you.

Brian said...

Mostly well, though for the past few days I've been fighting an acid reflux sore throat like I've never experienced before. I hope tonight will be the last of my froggy evenings though.

Will you be attending the press conference Tuesday?

Maya said...

Barring any unforeseen medical emergencies, yup. Sorry to hear you're not feeling well. As someone who deals with chronic acid reflux, I sympathize. Tain't fun.

I'll be sure to bring the video with me on Tuesday.

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Maya said...

Thanks, Term.